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Dealing with a pandemic means hosting a different kind of Olympic Trials

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By Jim Morris

At a time when the world is edging back to normal, the Olympic Swimming Trials, Presented by Bell, will have a very different look and feel.

Due to COVID-19 safety procedures there will be fewer athletes competing at the event, being held June 19-23 at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre – just 185 invited athletes compared to 762 who qualified in 2016. There will be fewer officials on the pool deck, no friends, family or fans watching from the stands, and limited media. On the final night there won’t even be a ceremony for the athletes who qualify for the Olympic Games in Tokyo – the team will be announced virtually the following day.

“There is definitely a different feel to it,” said Yuri Kisil, a veteran of the Rio 2016 Olympic team, who trains at the High Performance Centre – Ontario.  “I remember the last Olympic Trials was kind of a roller-coaster, but it was helpful to have your friends and teammates helping you through it.

“So, this will be interesting, just because you might not have as much of that support to help you through it.”

John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director and national coach, said Canadian swimmers had the longest lockdown of any of the world’s top 20 swimming nations. A small competition held in late May at the Toronto pool, involving Kisil’s teammates and swimmers from the High Performance Centre – Vancouver, was the first national-level high performance swim meet in Canada in 14 months.

“Our athletes have shown really how resilient they are,” said Atkinson. “How they’ve managed to stay focused with their coaches through 14 months, and coming out the other side, to get ready for the trials and show that they’re in a really good spot after the journey that they’ve been on.”

The level of preparation will vary for athletes depending on the restrictions they faced in the provinces where they train. Atkinson was still impressed with the results from the May meet and a time trial event earlier in the month.

“Whenever you’re approaching trials, even in what was a normal preparation to an Olympic Games, you always have those questions,” said Atkinson.

“We were able to get our athletes ready to race and they did a really great job. I think the meet and the time trials have shown they’ve been able to train, that they have done a good job, and now they can focus on the trials.”

The trials were first scheduled for March 2020 but were postponed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. After the Tokyo Olympics were delayed a year, the competition was rescheduled for April 2021. COVID spikes in Ontario pushed the event to May and now June.

“This is take four,” said Jocelyn Jay, Swimming Canada’s senior manager for sport development.

She credits Toronto Public Health and staff at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre for their help and diligence in making the trials a reality.

“It will be a sense of relief that we got through it and selected an Olympic Team,” said Jay, a former national team swimmer. “It wasn’t that Swimming Canada couldn’t make a decision, there was so much contingent on the government and public health.

“It has really been a constant roller-coaster.”

About 30 officials will oversee the meet, opposed to the normal 26 to 30 at each session. Only swimmers competing in events will be allowed in the building.

Atkinson expects to select a team of 23 to 25 swimmers, with eight to 10 of them men.

Swimming Canada has already provisionally nominated six athletes to the team based on top performances at the 2019 FINA World Championships. They are Olympic bronze medallist and two-time world champion Kylie Masse; world champion Margaret Mac Neil; Olympic champion and quadruple medallist Penny Oleksiak; double Olympic medallist Taylor Ruck and multiple international medallist Sydney Pickrem and Markus Thormeyer. Those athletes will be competing to solidify their spots, and add events to their programs.

Pickrem said going to trials with a spot on the team already secured “is definitely a little bit different” but won’t change her focus.

“Having that nomination does allow me to have a little bit different preparation,” said the 24-year-old who trains at the High Performance Centre – Ontario. “We haven’t really had much opportunity to race and I really want to throw down some good times, and get that adrenaline and race procedure leading into the Olympics.”

Several young swimmers will be looking to make their first Olympic team including Finlay Knox, 20, who recently set a Canadian record in the 200-m IM, and 14-year-old Summer McIntosh, who last month sliced eight seconds off the national age group record in the 400-m freestyle previously held by Ruck.

There also will be veterans like Aly Ackman, 28, and Olympic bronze medallist Brent Hayden, 37, who both came out of retirement for a chance to race in Tokyo.

Atkinson said having an extra year to prepare for the Olympics will affect athletes differently.

“For some it was perhaps an ability to address an injury,” he said. “With some of the younger athletes, it’s given them an extra year to mature. For some, it’s a year longer than they intended to swim.

“They’ve all found some positives they can draw from.”

Martyn Wilby, Swimming Canada’s Olympic program national senior coach, said the trials will be another example of people adjusting to life during a pandemic.

“The last 15 months have not been what anybody envisioned,” said Wilby. “You have to be adaptable to the situation and that’s the situation that we have.”